While it is unusual, at times Rick Bell and I see things quite differently. Other than the events described below, however, I can recall only a handful of occasions when we were genuinely out of sync. Rick is intelligent, reasonable, and extremely patient. Additionally, he and I are politically, religiously, and economically aligned, so we don’t have much to argue about. While I am not the most difficult person in the world, even Priscilla has noted I can be . . . determined. Momma Rose calls me “challenging,” or even “hardheaded.” I, however, disagree; I just know what I want and don’t give up easily.
The incident in question occurred last Friday, when Rick, Priscilla, and I were marking time, waiting for somebody, anybody, to arrive and break the monotony. In April, like many small businesses in America, the Coronavirus infected our operation. The pandemic has since been doing an extremely efficient job of discouraging customers from visiting southeastern Utah. The Twin Rocks economy has acquired all the symptoms of Commercial COVID-19, including fiscal fatigue, shortness of cash, and lost revenue. We do, however, remain optimistic a cure is on the horizon, and hope an end to our financial anemia is near.
While their rugs are typically of the Red Mesa Outline variety, this time Ruby unveiled an unfamiliar pattern. It was reminiscent of the classic Chief Blanket style, but with a contemporary twist. When Rick asked Ruby what it was called, she nonchalantly replied, “I don’t know, just something new.” As always, the rug was exceptionally well woven, with small weft threads, near-perfect design execution, and beautiful colors. There was, however, something different about this weaving. The background was a deep indigo, consistent in hue except for a line of slightly lighter blue near the top.
“What is that?” I asked. “It’s a feature,” Ruby replied, “part of the design.” “It’s a color change,” I countered. “Nope,” she stated emphatically. This, however, was not my first rug-rating rodeo. In fact, I have extensive experience in that particular arena. Shortly after we opened the trading post many years ago, a young mother brought in a stunning Burntwater-style weaving. It was amazing, but there was a “flaw.” Just as in Ruby’s rug, the top part of that weaving contained a slight color variation. “What’s that?” I asked the youthful weaver. “A spirit line,” she confidently responded.
Navajo weavers often leave imperfections in the borders of their rugs. These variations are called ch’ihonlt’i, which loosely translates into “spirit line.” It is said this design element allows the weaver’s spirit to safely exit the rug upon completion. Priscilla has explained that Navajo people believe only God is perfect, and we humans can never achieve that same perfection. Navajo artists consequently leave a slight defect in any piece they create.
By that time, I had seen a few spirit lines and knew the change in this young mother’s weaving was not as represented. Consequently, I pressed the issue. After a few minutes, the weaver relented and gave this explanation: "I have three kids and can only weave at night, after they go to bed. Our house does not have good light, so it’s always a little dark when I start working. The kids would not go to sleep that evening and were driving me crazy. I just used the wrong color. I thought it looked kinda’ good and didn’t want to take it out, so I left it in.”
At the time, Kira and Grange were small and I knew what she meant. I also thought she had an incredibly human story, so I bought the rug and hung it on the wall, expecting to have it for a long, long time. Not 72 hours later another young parent came into the trading post, spotted the weaving, noted its beauty, and, inspecting it closely, said, “What’s that?” I related the tale, and he immediately decided to take the rug home. He appreciated the weaver’s circumstances and felt a parental connection to her. For several years afterward, he returned annually, related the story and told me how much he was enjoying the rug.
When I once again inquired about the color change, Rick sided with Ruby, reminding me of the book Weaving a World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeing, by Roseann S. Willink and Paul G. Zolbrod. This book explores the patterns and irregularities often considered flaws in Navajo rugs and blankets and seeks to identify them as mythic symbols, historic messages, and/or personal stories.
At that point I had to admit Rick was making a serviceable argument. Ruby saw her opening and moved firmly into Rick’s corner. Bessie stood quietly nearby. After a spirited discussion about sun-drenched days and moonlit nights, the transaction closed without resolving the outstanding issue. In the end, whether the variation is a flaw or a feature is unimportant. The rug, like our relationship with Ruby and Bessie, is exceptional. Many years from now, some expert may evaluate it and find hidden meaning in the unique design. For now, we will simply accept the conclusion that the altogether captivating weaving contains an interesting irregularity.